Long before Will & Grace normalized the LGBTQ community for TV audiences, Winnie Holzman’s one-season drama, My So-Called Life gave us Rickie Vasquez, a perfectly coiffed gay teenage boy who had a love for bold patterns and dark eyeliner. More than 20 years later, Wilson Cruz’s portrayal of Rickie remains relevant, highlighting how ahead of its time the character was for a ‘90s audience.
The teen drama followed Angela Chase (Claire Danes) and her group of friends at the fictional Liberty High school. As the show’s protagonist, Danes perfectly captured the isolation and confusion of growing into one’s own. In a voice-over, she describes high school as “a battlefield, for your heart,” and throughout the course of the show, the writers captured the complexities of teen angst and self-identity. In the pilot episode, we’re introduced to Rickie Vasquez in the girl’s bathroom as he’s rummaging through his best friend’s backpack in search of eyeliner. As Angela and Rayanne (A.J. Langer) dissect every move that heartthrob Jordan Catalano (Jared Leto) makes, Rickie is out of focus in the background meticulously applying eyeliner, indicating that it’s not the first time he’s slayed a smokey eye. The scene is so casual in that it doesn’t shine a spotlight on Rickie’s sexual identity, but rather, empathetically weaves it into the larger storyline.
Throughout 19 episodes, we followed Rickie as he worked his way through the emotional complexities that come with being gay in predominantly straight surroundings. He lived with an aunt and uncle who were emotionally and physically abusive, he was made to feel alienated in the girl’s bathroom in which he sought solace, and he had to find some semblance of normalcy after his family moved away without telling him. We learn – after his English teacher asks him what Rickie is short for – that his real name is Enrique.
Ricky was never written as a character; he was able to explore his sexual identity at his own pace.
Never really feeling 100 percent comfortable in his own skin, Ricky confides in a friend, “You blend in, unlike me, who basically never will.” Ricky’s family, school, and emotional dilemmas were never neatly wrapped up at the end of an episode. Just like real life, they are constant threads that flowed with the overall narrative and didn’t propel the story forward as a “special episode” so common in teen shows of the ’80s and ’90s.
As a secondary character, the writers treated Ricky’s storyline the same way it treated the main characters’, with a mosaic of thought and emotion. He was never written as a caricature and was able to explore his sexual identity at his own pace. Coming to terms with his love for makeup and preference for female friends, he makes it clear, “I don’t want to be a girl, I just want to hang with the girls.”
In the pilot episode, he is introduced as bisexual, however, in episode 19 he confirms, “I’m gay. I’ve never said it before out loud.” There is a sense of relief as declares says those words, and as an audience, we’re left with a richly developed character that served as an influential model for LGBTQ characters that followed.